Hard travelin’

July 24, 2015 § 8 Comments

When someone tells me, “I love to travel!” I always tell them, “No, you don’t.”

“Sure I do! Last year alone we went to Maui and China!”

“Only crazy people love travel. What you love is destinating.”

“What?”

“Destinating.”

“What’s that?”

“It’s the act of quickly reaching your destination so you can enjoy yourself, which mostly means eating things you’d never eat at home for prices you’d never pay.”

It’s normal to despise travel, and I do. “Travel” derives from the Old French root of “travailler,” which today means “work” but originally meant “suffering and hardship.”

Okay, I made that up.

But I didn’t make up the fact that people hate travel and love destinating. Stand in an airport or a highway rest stop and count the people who are happy to be there.

THERE ARE NONE.

Travel, which is miserable, is a means to an end, destinating, where we can do fun things like eat cake for breakfast. Travel is so miserable that to shorten it we invented airplanes, but then went straight back to square one without passing “Go” or collecting $200 by inventing airplane food. Travel is so awful that we invented cruise ships so we could arrive without ever leaving.

People hate travel so intensely that they will pay thousands of dollars to get out of economy class even though it doesn’t shorten the trip and only changes the label on the liquor that stupefies them enough to endure the trip.

Nor can travel ever be pleasant, since by definition it bombards you with uncertainty.

“Are we going to miss our flight?”

“Are we lost again?”

“Where’d I put my passport?”

“Am I really going to have to pay four euros for a cup of coffee?”

“How much is a euro, anyway?”

“Is that really our hotel and why is it on fire?”

“Do we tip here?”

“Is that a bedbug?”

“What is this rash?”

“What’s that smell?”

“Why won’t this fucking Internet connection work?”

“Do I get off at this stop? Or the next one?”

“Is that guy a pickpocket or a bike thief?”

Etc.

Destinating, however, is joyous. For example:

“No, we’re sleeping until noon.”

“More cake, please.”

“Order room service.”

“We can diet after we get home.”

“Make it a double.”

“YOLO.”

See? Destinating is awesome and traveling is for shit. There’s a reason we have the clichéd phrase “weary traveler” but not “weary vacationer.”

Yet there’s a paradox: The quicker and less miserable the travel, the less fun at the destination. I don’t know why this should be so, but it is. Maybe it’s because once you get through an ordeal you’re not too picky about the scent of the bath soap and are deliriously happy to be off your bike and prone in a bed, not a ditch. Maybe it’s because arduousness reorders the hierarchy from “worry, spend, complain” into “shelter, food, rest,” in that sequence, and there is no room for “My Alfredo sauce could use a touch less garlic.”

In any event, when we rode through the Brandenburger Tor yesterday it was surreal, surrounded on all sides as we were by destinators already worried about whether the lighting for their selfies would be right, whereas we were desperately happy to have even found the fucking thing, to have survived Berlin traffic, and to “only” have five more ass-chewing miles to reach the hostile youth who, as Jack from Illinois (not his real name) pointed out, are the only youth you can trust anyway.

I suppose you can make a cult out of misery, or you can justify cheap travel as somehow more virtuous (next up, my 2016 Tour: Crossing the Mediterranean with the Syrian Boat People), but that’s not my intent. Hard traveling simply makes a sweeter destination.

Just ask Woody Guthrie.

  
Only five miles left!

  
Synagogue in Luckenwalde gutted by the Nazis.

  
Old facade in East Germany.

  
Nicest hotel of the trip … with a bathtub!

  
Sunny skies on the way to Berlin. What hardship???

  
Abandoned DDR station in Schoenefeld.

  
Bike route replete with roots, cracked pavement, overhanging vegetation.

  
Trabi style! Ostalgia!

 
  

Arc of triumph

July 24, 2015 § 39 Comments

  
We made it in fits and starts and with various modes of conveyance, but we made it! Here are some things I learned, and re-learned along the way.

1. The son is the father is the son.

2. Love is all you need, and a valid credit card.

3. The ride is inside you.

4. It’s all true, especially the parts I made up.

5. Cake for breakfast, yes.

6. Do it while you can.

7. The tortoise beat the hare.

8. Bathing is overrated, but not by much.

9. Doing beats saying.

10. When a man and his son endure together and laugh together they are changed forever.

Let’s go to Luckenwalde, Texas …

July 24, 2015 § 11 Comments

The room was spotless. The shower had unlimited hot water. The pillows were fluffy and the window looked out on a bucolic pastoral landscape where a fat, sweaty German farmer shoveled manure into a cart wearing a tank top and boxer shorts.There was only one problem: the housefly from hell. Each time he’d alight on an exposed toe or arm I’d swat him, miss, and drive him over to Woodrow’s bed. We batted him back and forth all night until it was time to get up, which we did, thirteen hours later, as tired as when we’d gone to sleep.

“You didn’t have any dinner,” I said. “You must be ravenous.”

“There wasn’t any dinner.”

“Sure there was. Black bread and jam and raisins. And water. We had tons of water.”

Woodrow stared glumly at the breakfast spread which was identical to the dinner spread. “I’ll pass, thanks.”

“You can’t pass. You have to eat to keep pedaling.”

“I’m done pedaling.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I’m exhausted. Let’s take the train to Luckenwalde, spend the night, and then ride to Berlin.”

“We can’t.”

“We can do anything we want.”

So I gave him The Lecture: “It’s easy to grin when your ship comes in and you’ve got the stock market beat. But the man who’s worthwhile is the man who can smile when his shorts are too tight in the seat.”

“I’m taking the train. You can bike to Luckenwalde, Dad, and we’ll meet at the station.”

“Son, today is the most important day of the trip.”

“What are you talking about?”

“It’s the time when you’re done, when you’re cracked, when you can’t go another single step that you have to dig deep and overcome adversity. Today is the day we’ve been waiting for. Let’s do it.”

“Are you serious?”

“I’ve never been more serious.”

“That highway is death. You’re so tired you can barely get out of bed. This isn’t a scene from ‘Spartacus,’ Dad.”

“Let’s go.”

Unwillingly, Woodrow followed. The next town, Bad Herzberg, was 13km away. Five minutes into the ride I felt worse than the last fifty miles of the 2012 BWR. Woodrow was fine, and dropped behind me to take over the job of truck-calling so we could hit the ditch each time a freight truck passed. After the tenth ditch run I was barely turning the pedals.

“You okay, Dad?”

“Yeah. Just. Need. Coffee.”

After an hour we reached Bad Herzberg and pulled into the Penny grocery store.

“The coffee will do the trick.”

Woodrow shrugged and ordered a small salami sandwich with orange juice. We went back out to our bikes.

“Hey,” I said, “would you be terribly disappointed if we took the train to Luckenwalde? It’s another 30 miles from here and the coffee isn’t working.”

“Of course it isn’t. You’re really old and really tired. You need some serious rest, not another all-day endurance test. Come on, Dad. The station is over this way.”

We reached the station, which had a giant “Train Station for Sale” sign on it. I wondered what one did with one’s own train station. We bought our tickets and sat down to wait. A group of ants had gathered around a dead comrade and we began following the entire path of various ants, marveling at their speed, unerring accuracy, and sense of purpose. We speculated about their home lives and what they did in their free time. We put little pebbles in their path and watched them climb over. Just like kids.

After an hour the train came and we were very happy. We settled in until the conductor checked our tickets. “You can’t take the train to Luckenwalde. You must get off at the next station and take the bus.”

“But what about our bikes?” I asked.

She shrugged. “That is a problem, yes.”

Fortunately the train ride had whittled off 15 miles of the ride, and more fortunately there was a bike path the whole way. Most fortunately the town square had about eleven gelato shops. The one we chose had a family at the next table chain smoking, even the three teens, one of whom looked to be about twelve.

But we didn’t care. We were one day away from Berlin.

  
Dinner AND Breakfast!

  
Train awesomeness!

  
Bargain station!

  
… with Woodrow and Wanky and the boys.

  
Rollin’!

  
Out in Luckenwalde, Germany, ain’t nobody feelin’ no pain!

  
NOBODY!

So near, so far

July 21, 2015 § 34 Comments

We are only two days from Berlin but it might as well be two hundred. It’s 4:36 in the afternoon and Woodrow is sound asleep. We checked in fifteen minutes ago. Our room is at the intersection of two farm roads, nine miles from the nearest town. We have no food for dinner or breakfast other than the leftovers I brought from Leipzig: a few slices of black bread, some raisins, an apple, and half a jar of jam.Today should have been easy, a 40-miler over gently rolling farm land with a whipping tailwind. It started perfectly with a huge hostile youth breakfast buffet and a quart of coffee. The forty or fifty bites we had from the bedbugs were a minor issue.

We were on the road before seven and within the first half hour the day went sideways and kept on spinning as I made a very wrong turn at a construction detour.

In a car when you go an hour out of the way you flip the car around, scream “fuck” a few times, and endure your wife’s 37 gentle reminders about how she told you to go left and why didn’t you stop and ask?

On a bike it’s all that except you have to pedal back the way you came and if you’re with Woodrow you feel doubly shitty because he’s still cheerful and says “It’s okay, Dad, everybody makes mistakes.”

We got back on the road to Torgau and the problems refused to take the day off. First we had a massive construction detour and then before Eilenburg we got kicked off the highway because it was suddenly for cars only. We sauntered into town, had chocolate croissants and coffee, and remounted.

For a long while things went great. Woodrow pulled down long stretches of bike path and if there is something better than sitting on your son’s wheel on a sunny day abroad I don’t know what it is.

Just before Torgau we hit another detour and it almost proved catastrophic. The already narrow road became narrower and suddenly we were being passed by dozens of giant freight trucks with inches to spare. At one point Woodrow got hit hard by the wind being shed by a passing truck and almost got sucked under its wheels. He instinctively leaned hard and steered for the ditch, which saved his life. We were scared shitless, miles from town and with no other road and no option but continuing.

Then it occurred to me–WWMSD? What would Manslaughter do? He’d fully utilize his MTB, that’s what.

“Ride in front,” I commanded, “and I’ll keep a rear lookout. When a truck comes, I’ll yell ‘truck’ and we’ll hit the ditch and keep pedaling until it passes, then hop back on the tarmac.”

“Ok,” Woodrow said, and for the next five miles that’s exactly what we did, zigzagging from road to ditch and back again. Nothing ups your off-road skills as quickly as the threat of death.

The adrenaline and effort from riding in the ditch wore us out, but we had no more close calls and in Torgau we got lunch and ice cream, and if your adventure ends in ice cream, how bad was it, really?

Unfortunately our hotel room was nine more miles up the road and we resumed ditch-and-tarmac riding after lunch.

Suffice it to say we hate the village of Torgau, but not as much as we’ll hate tomorrow’s stretch to Luckenwalde, which is 40 more miles of the same nonsense. The German drivers are respectful and skilled beyond belief, but the civil engineers definitely consider cyclists third class citizens. Sound familiar, CABO?

Unless you’re on a designated tour route, the bike paths are completely random and stop as abruptly as they begin, which is frustrating when you almost die but which adds to the challenge and therefore the satisfaction. I’m sure that was the engineers’ intent.

The perpetual raw ass from riding in shorts and moldy underwear could have been alleviated with bibs. WHO KNEW???

And …

WHY DIDN’T ANYONE TELL ME?

On the other hand, the manliness of crossing Germany by bike with cheesegrater ass is a kind of high water mark in roughing it.

Well, it’s almost six p.m. And the snores next to me have only gotten deeper. His face and arms are tanned with the color you only seem to get after days and days on a bike. Better have a slice of black bread, smear on some jam with my finger, and call it a day.

 

  

 

 

Beat by the slows

July 20, 2015 § 43 Comments

Today I finally cracked. Or rather, Woodrow cracked me. He didn’t do it with speed or strength or endurance, though. He did it with the slows.

Simply put, my son is the slowest rider on earth. The first day I chalked it up to having never ridden more than ten miles in his life and suddenly doing fifty miles uphill into the wind on an MTB with a backpack.

The second day I chalked it up to exhaustion from the day before plus brutal climbing. But as he got fitter and never seemed tired I began to wonder. Was he missing a quadriceps or a lung?

I tried all manner of tricks to speed him up. YOU KNOW THESE.

“Stay on my wheel!”

“Stay ahead of me!”

“stay even with me!”

“Find an easier gear!”

“Find a harder gear!”

“Spin!”

“Lower cadence!”

And of course “Arrrrrrrrrgh!”

All to no avail. Woodrow had his speed, singular, and it was slower than a tooth extraction. There was only one time that he let himself be cajoled off his 9-mph pace, and that was between Gotha and Erfurt. We were passing a pasture and a swarm of horse flies descended on his bare legs. Woodrow hates bugs.

I didn’t know what had happened; all I heard was a yell followed by a near-fatal swerve followed by a 22-mph pace. I leaped to catch on and he drilled it for fifteen solid minutes.

“Damn!” I said. “How come you won’t ride like that all the time? We’d be in Berlin by now.” But he just smiled and notched it back to 9-mph.

It was that deathly slow pace yesterday from Weimar to Weißenfels after so many consecutive days of snailing that did me in. We reached the Sport Tourist Hotel to find it empty and the door locked. After a few phone calls the manager answered and drove over to take our money and give us our room. Booking.com had assured me, of course, that mine was the last room so Hurry And Book Now! I laughed at my foolishness while we waited in the rain to enter the empty dorm.

Woodrow was untired and unfazed. “Awesome room, Dad! And the bathroom has soap!”

I lay on the bed wondering how I’d go out and hunt dinner on Sunday night in this tiny town in the middle of Noah’s second flood when everything was closed especially the grocery stores.

We finally found a Turkish place in the Altstadt and wolfed down the cheap cuisine. I noted a familiar pattern: Woodrow immediately recharged after food whereas I, like an old battery, never got back to the place I’d been the day before.

Fortunately our next leg, to Leipzig, was a mere 40km. We climbed out of Weißenfels and then hit the long effortless downhill tailwind all the way to Leipzig. Woodrow even notched it up to 11 or 12-mph, but the damage was done: I was crushed and could barely turn the pedals.

Ten kilometers from town we got lost and ended up on a Jay LaPkante dirt track along a fully graffiti-ized gas pipeline and when it dumped us out on the street we were hopelessly lost.

“Ask those two old ladies where the bike path is,” Woodrow said, pointing to two women in their forties.

“Excuse me,” I said in my best German, “can you direct me to the bike path?”

“I’m sorry,” the woman answered in perfect English. “But I don’t understand Polish. Do you speak English or German by any chance?”

At that moment a granny on a clunker came pounding by at a solid 20-mph. “C’mon, Woodrow! She looks like she knows where she’s going!”

“But Dad!” he protested, “She doesn’t know where we’re going!”

Despite the reasonableness of his objection we chased after her. She looked back. “Do you want something?”

“Yes, ma’am! The way to Leipzig!”

“Follow me, junger Mann, I show you the fast way!” Her previous pace was as nothing. She flexed her big legs and shot forward.

What followed was a combination between following Manslaughter down a cliff and Surfer Dan through stacked Santa Monica traffic and Wimberley through a crowded hairpin.

This old Frau was a hammer and she went over curbs, through muddy tracks, blew through orange lights, and passed other cyclists like a crit champ. Her legs were blocky and powerful and she railed the wet cobbled corners on her clunker with total confidence.

“Here we are!” she said, braking beneath the huge tower at Leipzig University. “You and the boy go well.” She put out her hand. “Christa Rothenburger.”

“You’re joking.”

She laughed. “No I’m not. Nice riding, really.” Then she blasted off on her clunker loaded with shopping bags. I wondered which one of them held her Olympic medals.

Woodrow had no idea who she was, he only knew it was the fastest he’d ever imagined riding on a bike and surviving.

We got to the hostile youth, checked in, and I collapsed. It was ten a.m. and all I could think was that the next day’s 50-miler through vales and up hills wasn’t going to be pretty.

  
  
  
  
  

  

  

  

  

  

  

  
 

It’s floodin’ down in Texas

July 19, 2015 § 35 Comments

“There’s only a 43% chance of thunder showers today,” Woodrow said before we started out.

“Those are terrible odds,” I said.

“Not at all. It actually means there’s a 57% chance of it not raining.”

“If the plane only had a 43% chance of crashing would you get in it?”

“Of course not. But you can’t compare the outcome of getting rained on with your plane falling out of the sky.”

“Why not?” I asked as I put my rain jacket in the top of my pack where I could get at it quickly.

“Because one is totally awful and the other isn’t.”

“Have you ever biked in a thunder storm?”

“No, but how bad can it be?”

We left the clean, dry, cozy hostel in Weimar under lowering skies but not before we had descended on the all-you-can-eat-for-seven-euros breakfast bar with incredible ferocity.

  
  
The other hostelites were picking at their food in a bored way when we swooped into the buffet like Fukdude and the Itonfly dudes on the fourth day of Man Tour. That was the day we emptied four giant tureens of oatmeal as the warm-up.

Woodrow and I piled our plates high with salami, black bread, fruit, cheese, and yogurt. I had three servings of cereal and cup after cup of scalding black coffee. The hostelites watched in amazed disgust as we returned again and again to the line.

  
On the road we immediately suffered from the three-mile ascent out of Weimar. Each day had been challenging, either from distance or terrain, and today we faced forty miles of endless rollers punctuated by short steep climbs.

We typically averaged about 10 mph but today was even less. Heavy bikes, backpacks, MTB tires, sneakers, and the constant undulations beat us down quickly.

What amazed me about my son was his refusal to complain and his good cheer. Over the course of the trip he had proved so easy to please: a hot shower, a full belly, a brief stop, ice cream on a sunny day, a cheeseburger when things were rough … this was the principal reason that traveling together was such a joy.

Then outside of Pfifferbach the deluge began. We threw on our jackets but the rain came so furiously that we were instantly drenched. Good thing I’d done sink laundry the night before. We rode for half an hour in the driving rain, which stopped as quickly as it had begun. The sun came out and soon we were completely dry.

In the distance we saw a McDonalds sign and raced for it. There was an outside patio with a canopy and we ordered big hot coffees. As we sat another huge thunderhead formed.

  
  
  
Woodrow looked at me. “Why don’t we stay here until it passes?”

“Sure, but why?”

“You know how when it was raining back there and I was trying to stay with you?”

“Yes.”

“Well, when it’s raining like that and you’re behind someone on a bike their rear wheel throws all the water and crap into your face and eyes.”

“Really?”

“Yep. It was horrible.”

“But not as bad as a plane crash?”

He laughed. “Close, though!”

At that moment the rain restarted. I pulled on a sweater and sipped my hot coffee as the rain pounded down. I thought about how nobody ever just waits out the rain anymore. Our schedules are too tight, and our means of conveyance make the weather irrelevant. Out in the rolling farmland a long way from the next stop on a bicycle you’re vulnerable, and it seems natural to sit back and wait it out.

Which we did. 

  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  

DDR redux

July 18, 2015 § 23 Comments

Today was the day in this epic father-son odyssey that the boy became a man, that the weak, diffident, whiny, insecure weakling metamorphosed if not into a full man then at least into something with a visible pair of balls. And I think Woodrow may have grown a bit today as well.

I was feeling a bit of pain from Finger Blogging Syndrome, but that was nothing compared to my advanced case of Rotten Toeliosis, the result of too many days in the same rancid footwear. [Parental discretion advised for the following imagery.]

 

Anticipating huge rain all day we left the youth hostel prison at six sharp after a quick snack of black bread and warm milk, and began what would be an unforgettable day of riding.

  

Things went great right from the start, as in right downhill all the way back to Wutha. We turned onto the bike path for what would be our first stop, in Gotha.

“They’ll have awesome breakfasts and coffee at the station,” I assured Woodrow, who was skeptical and hungry, a bad combo.

“The last time you were really confident I almost died.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“The first day I asked why we weren’t using helmets and you said because we would be going so slow.”

“And?”

“On the descent into Limburg we were passing cars at 70kph.”

  

  
Gotha turned out to be something less than breakfast paradise but at least they had cake.

  

There is a huge infrastructure of bike routes throughout the state of Thuringen, a combination of bike paths and side streets that are very well signed and that take you through countless beautiful small towns, through woods, and along rivers and creeks.

We saw so much of the old DDR, buildings essentially unaltered and cobbled roads unchanged from the bad old days of communism. The down side to the bike routes is that they can be up to double the length of normal roads, which sucks when you’re tired.

  
The solution is to ride on the normal roads, as we saw all the racerish cyclists do. Although the roads are narrow, motorists slow down, don’t honk, and pass when safe.

All the way to Gotha and Erfurt it was essentially downhill with a whipping tailwind. We had terrible food at Joey’s Pizza in Erfurt (who could have guessed?) and totally missed the hip part of town filled with bistros and sidewalk cafes.

   
    
 

However, the rain refused to fall, and when Woodrow gave me the I’m-exhausted-can-take-the-train face, I ignored it and we set out for the final leg of our trip to Weimar.

We knocked out the final segment on nothing but fumes, and collapsed in the town square. “Where’s our hotel?”

“Uh, just up the road a little.”

“Up the road ten miles like last time?” Woodrow asked.

“No, just a couple.” We slogged out if town uphill all the way as storm clouds gathered. We missed the gigantic hostel and blindly pounded up the mountain. When I realized the mistake three miles later Woodrow smiled with his characteristic good humor. “At least we get to go downhil!”

We bombed it just ahead of the raindrops and upon entering our room Woodrow shouted, “Look, Dad! The toilet, shower, and beds are all in one room!”

We did a little happy dance, then we did laundry, and then we were done.

  
 

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